CARY — Even warming up, Joshua Bell puts everything he has into his playing. Wednesday night, he spent a half-hour or so in an upstairs bedroom of Jim Romano's mansion, dress shirt untucked, getting ready to play a recital. And it was jaw-dropping to hear.
The sound from Bell's Stradivarius violin seemed to dance around the room as his fingers flew, running through a series of impossibly fast scales. When he slowed down, it sounded as if the violin was crying, sweet and soulful. But Bell himself seemed nonchalant about it.
"I haven't played these pieces in a while," he said during a pause. And all of this preparation was for a 10-minute performance in a living room in Cary.
Bell is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest living violinists, a superstar who can command $50,000 a night and plays the finest halls in the world. He's in the Triangle to perform with the N.C. Symphony tonight in Raleigh. But Wednesday night, he played a far more intimate venue for free.
Bell performed a recital in symphony patron Romano's home for a $10,000 donation to the N.C. Symphony - the price determined at auction - for an audience of two dozen friends and patrons. Dinner followed the show, and Romano even played a bit of violin himself to open for Bell.
"I've never been to an event like this where the host plays as the hostess cooks," Bell deadpanned to appreciative laughter.
Bell's act of charity wasn't the first toward the symphony. Renowned French pianist Pascal Roge waived his performance fee last month, playing a free concert with his wife. Nor will it be the last, with symphony board member Branford Marsalis, a Durham resident, scheduled to play a benefit show in June.
It comes when every dollar is critical. Following a round of budget cuts, the symphony's operating budget is $11.9 million - more than $2million less than the year before. But if the symphony reaches $8 million in revenue this fiscal year, it will get $1.5 million in state money (on top of $2.75 million in state money the symphony has already received).
A bit more than halfway through the fiscal year, David Chambless Worters, the N.C. Symphony's president and CEO, reports that revenues are on track to reach that goal. But officials are taking nothing for granted. Next week, orchestra members, including conductor Grant Llewellyn, will be calling patrons to personally thank them for their support, the symphony's first ever "thank-a-thon."
"Our top priority this year is to hit that $8 million mark set by the legislature," says Worters. "That's absolutely critical for making our overall plan work. But I am hopeful that we've seen the worst and we're now on a path toward recovery."
Symphonies everywhere are confronting similar budget crunches and turning to unusual fundraising schemes. Musicians in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took a $1 million pay cut, challenging the community to match that in donations. And the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston auctioned violins signed by Nobel Prize winners, plus one painted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
"It is a very difficult climate for fundraising," says John Bence, public relations director for the League of American Orchestras. "Many orchestras report that year-end giving was very strong. But it's not a rosy picture. Things are still very difficult."
Wednesday night, it was difficult to think about money once Bell set a bow to his instrument. He played pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sarasate, showing off dazzling technique while coaxing an immense amount of feeling from his violin.
The latter piece was particularly impressive, requiring a deft and intricate touch on runs that were the equivalent of high-speed hairpin curves. The applause afterward was as thunderous as two-dozen pairs of hands could manage.
"I do maybe 10 of these a year," Bell said afterward of his charity gig. "But actually doing one in somebody's home is somewhat unique."